I’ve been trying to write this intro now for far too long. I spent days thinking it over, getting a sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach every time I even opened my computer to look at the page. Then I realized, that’s exactly why I have to write this. This is such a big part of everyday life for so many people, and yet we’re only now starting the conversation. I realized that this feeling, weighing me down everywhere I went, was anxiety.
So many people suffer from anxiety, especially those in my generation. In fact, as many as one in five people may have a serious mental illness at some point in their lives. One in five! Yet, here we are, in 2018, with the youth of America still trying to explain to our parents that something is wrong with our school system. The same fight we’ve been fighting for generations. So what do we do? There’s one group of kids who might have some answers.
I am part of a mental health committee at my school called Project Aware. We started the team in the 2016-2017 school year, and there are five of us on the team. Our goals are to raise awareness of mental health issues and, ideally, help end the stigma around mental health.
So far, we have made posters to put around the schools and started planning a district wide Mental Health Awareness Day. Students will be able to come from all over the school district to learn about mental health and take a break from their usual stressful activities.
We also hosted an assembly with Kevin Hines, one of the few people to ever jump off of the Gold Gate Bridge and survive. He is currently a mental health advocate and we greatly appreciated him coming to speak to us.
There is one particular member of this team who has made a significant contribution to the committee. Maenell Pendleton is a kind, outspoken 16-year-old who goes to West High School with me. In her free time, Maenell spends time with her pets and her family. She has also been involved in dance for thirteen years and practices routines in her free time. Maenell is a very ambitious and passionate teenager, and studies in her free time because she wants to pursue a career into the medical field. In fact, she’s even thought about becoming a psychiatrist.
I asked if this was one of the reasons she joined this team.
“Well yes,” she said, “but, mostly, I want to end the stigma!”
There has been a long history of stigma around mental health. In fact, many people still have a difficult time accessing mental health treatment. Even in a state such as Vermont, which is known as a state with easily accessible mental healthcare, up to 43% of adults with mental illnesses do not receive treatment.
Additionally, Iowa is still shutting down many state care facilities. Maenell and I could be affected by this. Maenell said she was proud to see how the school has improved, especially considering less teens are being teased about their mental health, and many more are aware of what mental health can look like.
Although this team is only getting started, it has already been making a huge impact in the community of our small town in Iowa. Imagine the impact a program such as this could have in schools across the country. A committee such as this could drastically improve schools.
So far, we have done what we set out to do: start a conversation. Everybody, from freshmen to seniors, have taken a step back to consider that mental health issues are OK to experience and you aren’t crazy for it. Hopefully, one day we can live in a world where everyone is as open about mental health as we are about physical health. Then, everyone can see how much kinder the world can be when we offer help to those in need.
For more information about West High School’s Project Aware Committee, follow their Twitter page here.